anomalous stories incongruous places

Estimated reading time is 4 minutes.

STEPHEN JAY GOULD. I can’t recall what first attracted me to him, but it was a long time ago. The first book of his that I remember reading was The Flamingo’s Smile – Reflections In Natural History from 1985. What a delightful title for a book of essays on the smileful (have I just coined a new word?) turns that evolution has caused Earth’s creature to take! 

But I did not turn to Mr. Gould because he was a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist. I was pointed in his direction because I wanted to learn more about the modern American essay as a form of literature than what I recalled from high school and college courses. I could not have turned to a better writer than Stephen Jay Gould.

SJG addressed the issues of religion and science and what he called non-overlapping magesteria (NOMA) at much greater length in his book Rocks of Ages – Science And Religion In The Fullness Of Life (1999).

“Incongruous places often inspire anomalous stories. In early 1984, I spent several nights at the Vatican housed in a hotel built for itinerant priests. While pondering over such puzzling issues as the intended function of the bidets in each bathroom, and hungering for something other than plum jam on my breakfast rolls (why did the basket only contain hundreds of identical plum packets and not a one of, say, strawberry?), I encountered yet another among the innumerable issues of contrasting cultures that can make life so interesting. 

Our crowd (present in Rome for a meeting on nuclear winter sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences) shared the hotel with a group of French and Italian Jesuit priests who were also professional scientists.

At lunch, the priests called me over to their table to pose a problem that had been troubling them. What, they wanted to know, was going on in America with all this talk about scientific creationism? One asked me:

‘Is evolution really in some kind of trouble. and if so, what could such trouble be? I have always been taught that no doctrinal conflict exists between evolution and Catholic faith, and the evidence for evolution seems both entirely satisfactory and utterly overwhelming. Have I missed something?’

A lively pastiche of French, Italian, and English conversation then ensued for half an hour or so, but the priests all seemed reassured by my general answer: Evolution has encountered no intellectual trouble; no new arguments have been offered. Creationism is a homegrown phenomenon of American sociocultural history—a splinter movement (unfortunately rather more of a beam these days) of Protestant fundamentalists who believe that every word of the Bible must be literally true, whatever such a claim might mean.

We all left satisfied, but I certainly felt bemused by the anomaly of my role as a Jewish agnostic, trying to reassure a group of Catholic priests that evolution remained both true and entirely consistent with religious belief.”

The above is from an essay titled “Nonoverlapping Magesteria” on The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archives website (which is no longer available). This essay originally appeared in the March 1987 issue of Natural History magazine and was reprinted a year later in the book Leonardo’s Mountain Of Clams And The Diet Of Worms. Another 4,400 words follow the above, which are the first three paragraphs of the essay. 


Stephen Jay Gould's book Leonardo's Mountain Of Clams

Fruitful cooperation?

The original essay included a postscript by Gould to his recently deceased friend and fellow scientist, Carl Sagan:

“Carl Sagan organized and attended the Vatican meeting that introduces this essay; he also shared my concern for fruitful cooperation between the different but vital realms of science and religion. Carl was also one of my dearest friends. I learned of his untimely death on the same day that I read the proofs for this essay. I could only recall Nehru’s observations on Gandhi’s death—that the light had gone out, and darkness reigned everywhere.

But I then contemplated what Carl had done in his short sixty-two years and remembered John Dryden’s ode for Henry Purcell, a great musician who died even younger: He long ere this had tuned the jarring spheres, and left no hell below

The days I spent with Carl in Rome were the best of our friendship. We delighted in walking around the Eternal City, feasting on its history and architecture—and its food! Carl took special delight in the anonymity that he still enjoyed in a nation that had not yet aired Cosmos, the greatest media work in popular science of all time.

I dedicate this essay to his memory. Carl also shared my personal suspicion about the nonexistence of souls—but I cannot think of a better reason for hoping we are wrong than the prospect of spending eternity roaming the cosmos in friendship and conversation with this wonderful soul.”

Stephen Jay Gould was also a diehard fan of Gilbert & Sullivan (!) and baseball fan. A posthumous collection of his writing on America’s (once) National Pastime was published in book form as Triumph And Tragedy In Mudville – A Lifelong Passion For Baseball (2003). Recommended reading for fans of baseball and of fine writing.

PS: The image at the top of this page is taken from Mr. Gould’s appearance on The Simpsons television show (where one can often find anomalous stories incongruous places) in the episode titled “Lisa The Skeptic.”





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